Robert Bresson's 1959 film Pickpocket is something of an enigma. A short, stark feature about an unremarkable, emotionally unavailable man named Michel whose only passion is the art of pickpocketing, which is the only distraction he has in an existence that otherwise consists of him brooding in his small apartment.
The biggest question I found myself having after the film, and one that I think many in the class had, was "why?" The film offers only a hint as to why Michel does what he does; in an early scene, Michel comments about supposed "supermen," echoing a theme in Crime and Punishment. He seems to feel that he has a sense of entitlement; being especially talented at pickpocketing, he feels that he ought to be allowed to do it. Beyond this early exchange, the film offers little outright clues. Perhaps Michel does it for sport. Perhaps he is addicted, getting a high from the thrill of the crime and the excitement of being caught.
Pickpocket is, in fact, filled with "why"'s. Why does Michel steal from his mother but not bring himself to face her? Why does he ignore Jeanne for most of the film? The first time viewing the film, there is little else to do besides guess.
Personally, I feel there's a strong case in saying that Pickpocket is about a man's search for purpose. Bresson doesn't give us too much to work with throughout the film; Michele seems stoic to the end, declaring to Jeanne after he is arrested and thrown in jail that it is not being imprisoned that bothers him, but rather the fact that he got caught. He seemed obsessed with the art of the crime, the beauty of the act which he mentioned in his earlier remarks on "supermen." But as Jeanne moves closer to the bars of the cell, Michel kisses her forehead. His voiceover comments on his circumstances with Jeanne, saying "What a strange way I had to travel to find you." I find this to be a pivotal moment in the film; Michel may have lost his freedom (if it can be called that, since he imprisons himself in his apartment when he isn't out stealing, seemingly out of obsession rather than necessity) but he has gained something he finds much more valuable.
We never find out what becomes of Michel and his newfound sense of purpose in life, but we're not meant to. What we're watching isn't a crime film at all, it's a study in self worth and significance that happens to have crime in it. Could it be that Michel simply wanted that old cliche, love?